Niger announced overnight that it was reopening its borders with several of its neighbours, a week after a coup that has been condemned by foreign powers and raised fears of a wider conflict in West Africa’s Sahel region.
Defence chiefs from regional bloc ECOWAS will start a two-day meeting in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on Wednesday to discuss the situation in Niger, where ECOWAS has threatened to use force if soldiers do not reinstate the elected president.
A delegation from the regional bloc was also expected to arrive in Niger’s capital Niamey on Wednesday to start talks with the junta, led by General Abdourahmane Tiani.
“The land and air borders with Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Libya and Chad are re-opened from August 1, 2023,” a junta spokesperson said on state television.
The junta closed the borders last Wednesday, at the same time that it announced that it had removed democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum from power.
The borders that have reopened are mainly in remote desert areas. Niger’s key entryways for trade and commerce remain closed due to sanctions imposed by the regional bloc.
Niger’s coup was the seventh military takeover in less than three years in West and Central Africa, where some of the coup-hit countries have banded together in opposition to the rest of the 15-nation regional bloc.
European countries started evacuating their citizens this week after Mali and Burkina Faso, also ruled by military juntas, said they would consider any regional intervention in Niger to be a declaration of war and would come to its defence.
The first military planes carrying mostly European nationals landed in Paris and Rome on Wednesday.
“Things could have turned ugly but it still is nice to be back here,” a French evacuee who gave his name as Charles told Reuters TV.
“We will see how things evolve over there in the coming days and weeks. For us, who care about it quite a lot, we will follow this closely,” he said.
France, the United States, Germany, and Italy have troops in Niger on counterinsurgency and training missions, helping the army to fight groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.
There has been no announcement of troops being withdrawn so far. Germany’s defence minister said on Wednesday that there were no concerns about the safety of German soldiers.
Any Western military intervention to restore democracy must be ruled out, as it would be “perceived as a new colonisation”, said Italian foreign minister Antonio Tajani.
Niger is the world’s seventh-biggest producer of uranium, the radioactive metal widely used for nuclear energy and treating cancer.
The EU Commission said earlier this week that it had sufficient inventories of natural uranium to mitigate any short-term supply risks.